(Osaka, 1950- )
Soul singer Wada Akiko is often referred to as the God Nehsan (God Big Sister, as opposed to Godfather!) or the Jotei (Female Emperor) of the Japanese entertainment business, and she has even been called the Japanese Aretha Franklin. Certainly, strength of character helped both women reach the top of the business almost as much as their singing ability. And race also had its part to play, though in Wada's case she was able to keep her ethnic Korean background largely unknown. She says she never consciously tried to keep it a secret, but it was only after an August 2005 magazine article that it became widely known.
Popularly known as Akko, Wada has a tall and solidly-built physique which, though it was a burden in her early years, has become a major part of her image. She looks intimidating and often towers above even her male co-stars, but she has a quick and ready wit and is not averse to shedding tears on stage or TV.
Born Kim Bok Ja to Korean parents in Osaka in 1950, like many "zai-nichi chosenjin" (ethnic Koreans resident in Japan) her name was Japanized, in her case to Kaneumi Fukuko. She grew up in the Osaka neighborhood of Tsuruhashi, home to many non-Japanese, where her father ran a restaurant and a judo club. As a young girl, Wada spent many laborious hours on all fours cleaning the tatami floors of the large dojo (practice area). The club produced many fine wrestlers and Wada had the physique to perhaps join them - she was already 163cm tall by the time she finished elementary school!
During her teens, she often skipped school and stayed out late in Osaka's entertainment districts. She even ran away to Tokyo in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. She was taken into custody by police and returned home to a fiery reception from her father. She eventually dropped out of high school at the age of 17, but by that time she had made some progress in building a singing career. Under the of Sakamoto Sumiko, she had been performing at local dancehalls for some time and she started working in a jazz coffee shop, something that was all the rage at the time.
She was scouted by the Hori Pro talent agency and adopted the name of her maternal uncle for her stage name. She made her recording debut in 1968 with "Hoshizora no Kodoku" (The Solitude of the Starry Sky, left). The following year, she had her first big hit with Doushaburi no Ame no Naka de (In the Pouring Rain). In 1972, she won for Best Song at the Japan Record Awards. In 1976, she married the president of a promotion company but the marriage only lasted eight months. In 1981, she married photographer Iizuka Koji.
In the ever-competitive music business, her size made her an easy target for psychological bullying. She would be told that she was in the wrong dressing room and to go join the other men. On her many television appearances, she sometimes relates tales of her early days but says it helped her build character and toughness. These characteristics in addition to a rich voice have carried her through a career that has seen over 70 single and album releases. She has also appeared over 20 times on the annual Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red-White Song Contest) held every New Year's eve and has been a team leader several times.
Though she can be seen singing on TV, she spends more time as a variety show host. On popular shows like Akko ni Omakase (Leave it to Akko) and Beauty Colliseum, she is very direct and often critical, especially of those whose problems are caused by their own weakness. In a culture where women have traditionally been discouraged from speaking out and expected to be submissive to men, Wada is an inspiration to those who want to break this mold.